Objective empathy?

Source: Image by Karen Gillerman; shared with me on Facebook by Amos Fabian

Lisa Nackan’s October 12 article in the Canadian National Post, “The Silence of friends is deafening; indifference to the attack on Israel is dangerous” describes an icy social landscape.

Nackan, a Toronto writer, registered psychotherapist and art therapist, writes, “I am not the same ‘myself’ I was just a couple of days ago.  I am excruciatingly and irrevocably changed.”  Nackan describes, among other powerful insights, the reality of silence from friends, colleagues and employers: “On Oct. 7, 2023, I didn’t see or hear one word of sympathy or compassion from anyone who was not Jewish.  The silence has been deafening.  The only social media posts from those outside of my community have been from those supporting the Palestinians.”  In my experience, this reality did not fundamentally change in the week beyond October 7—even though the sincere empathy and good will of many individuals should be acknowledged.

Nackan’s relatable description helped me to think about something that would make a huge difference to me: hearing more elaborate “I” statements from people about how the October 7 pogrom might have challenged their understanding of reality.

Given the problematic aspects of “Me, Me, Me” culture, one might think that a series of “I” statements from a person with no personal ties to Israel could be self-centered.  However, these “I” statements is precisely what my soul longs for right now.

It is very reasonable for people reaching out to say or write something such as, “you must be feeling horrible.”  This is most likely what I would say or write myself in similar situations.

However, when such statements are the only reaction expressed, something is missing.

“You must be feeling horrible” stands as an invitation to share with the listener a catalogue of dreadful feelings and facts: to tell them that my immediate family, like everyone else, are heartbroken. But to add that they were not physically in the pogrom—and then to provide a “point-form” list and brief bios of the people my family knows who were murdered or kidnapped—concluding with general statements about how terrible war is.

The listener to this quantitative and qualitative catalogue of murder, rape and torture might be moved but nevertheless remain assertively “objective.”  In other words, speaking to a person with family connections in Gaza, that person will likely use the same generic statement, “you must be feeling horrible” and would possibly tend to nod in agreement that “the occupation” is the root of all evil.

It should be noted that I myself—and countless other Jewish people—feel awful for the people of Gaza who want peace.  One of the problems that I have to deal with is the collapse of some of the values that were the pillars of my education.  Like all people who grew up in Israel and who served in the Israel Defense Force, I was educated at school, in the army and through literature, art and the media to want peace.  Were we free of bias, BS, moral error and hypocrisy? Of course not (nobody is)—but the consistent and sincere tendency of our education was toward peace.

My education for peace was very greatly reinforced by my parents and by the fact that my father, who before I was born was a special-forces soldier for almost three years, developed as a result of his army service a very strong aversion to war.  My father was a wonderful stay-at-home dad and sculptor, and he is also an independent thinker about physics <>.  In a sincere and persistent way, my father deconstructed the heroic code.  He drilled into my mind and heart the human costs of war, the failings of military bravado, and the importance of respect for the humanity of “the enemy.”

The empathy that I long for now is in the form of recognition that the peaceful values and good will of my education have been brutally challenged by the October 7 pogrom.  I am not comforted by a quasi-clinical approach to friendship informed by the appropriate social cues of acknowledging all human suffering in a calm and “objective” manner.  I long for interaction with people who FEEL the noble failure (to borrow a term I heard once) of what should be our shared values and who THINK about what this means.

Our understanding of reality consists of both empirical observations and theoretical concepts.  When theoretical concepts tragically clash with empirical reality, the search for the truth should become a burning passion.  A person who, in the aftermath of the October 7 pogrom, hangs on to the idea that the “occupation” is the root of all evil is a person who has deliberately or unintentionally embraced explicit or latent Jew hate.

The problem with the lack of “I” statements is that they create a sense of stressful mystery and “suspense” about what the other person’s beliefs are.  The pregnant silences and gaps leave open the very distinct possibility that the “two sides to every story” and “moral equivalency” narratives have survived unchallenged by the empirical facts of Jew hate.  Could these narratives survive the spectacle of our worst fears coming true on October 7—fears that we tried to brush away by believing that the Hamas would be ultimately reasonable and pragmatic?  No human being should remain indifferent to what October 7 means about our assumptions.

“I” statements are more effective than “you” statements when it comes to making clear a person’s views, assumptions, and boundaries.  Here are some examples of “I” statements that would be articulated in my fantasy universe (it should be acknowledged that I did hear such thoughts from some people): “I am horrified by the slaughter, rape, torture and unbridled display of psychopathy and Jew hate.  NOTHING can ‘explain’ these atrocities.  I know that the Hamas is a terrorist organization that lies and deceives.  It has pretended to be a normal governing body but in fact repurposes any resource or opportunity given to it into violence against Israeli civilians.  The Hamas wants as many Palestinians as possible to die, and it is the Israeli army, not the Hamas, who throughout the years has taken care to minimize civilian casualties—despite the strategic efforts of the Hamas to position its war machine where civilians are, all while throwing smoke in the world’s eyes, cynically fostering false hopes for peace.  There are reports that some of the war equipment that Hamas used in the October 7 pogrom flowed into Gaza through the border guarded by Israel: we trust that you want what we want—peace—so we will be as nice as possible to you and give you what you want, the naïve rationale went.  Israel left Gaza in 2005 and dismantled settlements around it—only to see a leadership rise whose sole obsession is the destruction of Israel.  The villages attacked in the pogrom were not settlements; they were in Israel since the establishment of the country.”

Attempts at empathy without statements that express a sober understanding of the genocidal facts and of what these facts mean about our own assumptions quickly devolve into “othering.”  They create stress and suspicion instead of comfort.   The compassionate person remains objective, detached and superior—a magnanimous being willing to offer statements such as “this must be horrible for you” to any person who presents them with a narrative of victimhood.

Jews have been accused of trying to police people’s thoughts and feelings by demanding the acknowledgement that the war with the Hamas and with similar haters that has been forced upon Israel is not “symmetric.”  I do not have any desire to force upon people thoughts and feelings that they do not want to have.  But I do have a desire to understand reality as accurately as I can—as well as a desire to write and share my thoughts with people who make the free choice to read them.

Today, the mayor of New York Eric Adams feels like a friend:,the%20right%20that%20we%20know.

With apologies for the crude language, what I have been learning over the years in a variety of contexts is that I cannot afford to be an “empathy whore.” Every human being deserves basic empathy.  All human beings have rights. Life is hope.  But empathy can also be cheapened when offered “upon demand” without discrimination.  Deep emotional attachments need to be cultivated with work and shared values.  Emotional attachment cannot be directed toward any person or cause who presents themselves as deserving.  The squeaky wheel does not get the grease.  The wheel that takes us farther in our lifelong journey of learning does.  The Hamas feels free to cheat and lie to anyone in order to preserve their basic emotional attachment to Jew hate.  In a perverse way, there is something to learn from their psychopathic attachment to the murder of the people of Israel: a person cannot be emotionally attached to “everything” at the same time and remain honest.  We should reflect on and articulate our values and our boundaries.

I remember Martin Buber only vaguely, but I find myself drawn to these vague memories of his discussion of I, it and thou.  If I remember correctly, “I and It” indicates an attitude towards an object.  We experience the object as a separate entity—the “It” is othered.   In contrast, we can work toward relationships of “I and Thou”—relationships that diminish the boundaries between us and the other.

War is a terrible tragedy and failure of humanity because it forces us to treat the other as an object.  My heart—like that of countless Jewish people—goes out to the people of Gaza who want a peaceful coexistence with Israel and who are trapped in the nightmare.

For peace to be spoken about with any degree of reality, one thing must happen—Jew hate must be erased.  Jew hate must not be allowed to be anyone’s anti-depressant, distraction from self-reflection, escape from responsibility, solution to envy, or euphoria-inducing, non-chemical drug.  No theoretical construct about oppression can rationalize October 7.  It is not okay when Jews are murdered, raped and tortured.  Enough with the dehumanization of the Jews!

About the Author
Gefen Bar-On Santor teaches English at the University of Ottawa, as well as adult-education literature courses at the Soloway Jewish Community Centre in Ottawa, Canada. She is an enthusiastic believer in life-long learning and in the relevance of fiction to our lives. She also writes at
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